English-Language Learners

Cause of Higher Calif. Scores Sore Point In Bilingual Ed. Debate

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 06, 2000 9 min read

Opponents of bilingual education are welcoming improved standardized-test scores in California as powerful new ammunition in their fight for English-only instruction, interpreting the gains as clear affirmation that students should be immersed in English from the moment they enter school.

But while that interpretation has received prominent attention in the national news media since the scores’ release last month, some California education officials, as well as academics and interest groups that defend bilingual education, see it as an oversimplification of what has actually happened in the state.

English-immersion proponents have cited the new scores as proof that California’s 1.5 million students with limited English proficiency are much better off since the passage two years ago of Proposition 227, a ballot measure that sought to replace bilingual education with English immersion in the state’s public schools. Some advocates have drawn a direct cause-and-effect link between the initiative and the news that California’s LEP students have substantially improved their performance on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition for the second year in a row.

“The only argument opponents made was to say if Proposition 227 passed, it would be a disaster,” said Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed the campaign to get Proposition 227 approved by voters. “Now, in less than two years, it’s increased the test scores.”

Others contend, however, that the gains among LEP students must be viewed within a broader context of school improvement efforts in California. The scores of LEP students climbed this year at a rate that was comparable to that of all students in the state.

“We don’t have enough information to make a single causal relationship,” said John Mockler, the interim secretary of education to Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. “We have 8,000 schools in California. There’s not complete information on each school of what goes on in the classroom.”

Bilingual education advocates also argue that the impact of Proposition 227 on California schools has been relatively small, given that fewer than a third of the state’s LEP students were in bilingual programs to begin with. They note that just 29 percent of the state’s LEP students—most of whom speak Spanish—were in bilingual education programs at the time the measure was adopted in June 1998; in the first year after its passage, that proportion dropped to 12 percent.

Meanwhile, the state education department has not broken down the test scores of LEP students to allow comparisons between children based on the kind of language program they are in. In the absence of such an analysis, each side in the debate has been bolstering its arguments with little more than anecdotal evidence.

“You really would want to know what type of program the child is in, how long they’ve been in it, so you can compare the programs,” said Hector O. Villagra, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which supports bilingual education.

Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, agreed that such an analysis would be useful, but said that her department lacked the resources to do it.

“I don’t have the kind of money to do that stuff,” she said in an interview last week.

‘Not Popping Champagne’

Whether bilingual education supporters succeed in casting doubt on the perception that passage of Proposition 227 improved LEP students’ scores is of interest well beyond California.

Educators around the country tend to pay attention to the approach California takes toward instructing students with limited English skills, simply because 40 percent of the nation’s LEP students reside in the state.

More immediately, the California results could emerge as central to the campaign now being waged in Arizona to win passage of a similar ballot measure by voters there in November. Mr. Unz, the chairman of the Los Angeles-based English for the Children, is also underwriting the campaign for the Arizona initiative, Proposition 203.

Following the release of the new California test scores, Mr. Unz communicated two messages about them that were widely disseminated in news accounts. First, he said that Proposition 227 had belied predictions of disaster and instead had actually improved overall achievement by LEP students. Second, he argued that such students’ test scores were generally higher in districts that had strictly implemented Proposition 227 than in those that had kept some bilingual education.

“It’s fair to say Proposition 227 hasn’t been a disaster,” acknowledged Superintendent Eastin, who strongly opposed the measure before its passage. But she added that it was unfair to conclude it had been the most important factor in raising LEP students’ test scores. “There hasn’t been a real analysis,” she said.

The scores for such students have increased the most in the lower grades, she pointed out, which is where the state has concentrated its efforts in class-size reduction. She and other California officials say various other initiatives, including an increased emphasis on academic standards, new textbooks, additional library resources, and a ramping up of teacher training, could just as easily have spurred the rise.

And she and other officials noted that the scores for LEP students were still much lower than for students who are fluent in English.

By far, a majority of LEP students still scored below the 50th percentile in all subject areas and grade levels on the Stanford-9, a national norm-referenced test.

The highest scores for LEP students were in 2nd grade, where 40 percent scored at or above the national average in mathematics this year, up from 33 percent the previous year. In reading, 25 percent scored at or above the national average this year, vs. 19 percent the year before.

“We’re not popping champagne yet,” Mr. Mockler said. “We’re moving up, but I also caution, we still have a long way to go on this.”

Scoring Error Emerges

Meanwhile, Mr. Unz’s second message—that students in English-immersion programs scored higher than students in bilingual programs—lost some credibility after the appearance of the first spate of press coverage, which included a front-page story in The New York Times and an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

To support his point, Mr. Unz drew attention to Oceanside, a district located 30 miles north of San Diego that converted all its bilingual education programs to English-immersion programs after passage of Proposition 227. Scores in the 22,000-student district seemed to have risen dramatically, while the scores of districts that kept bilingual programs—Vista, a neighbor to Oceanside, and San Jose—lagged behind. The comparison between Vista and Oceanside was featured in both The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

But a week after the release of the scores, Vista discovered it had mistakenly lumped half its LEP students who were most fluent in English in with its regular students.

So when the state’s testing contractor finishes a rerun of the scores in the coming weeks, it is expected that the scores of LEP students in Vista will rise considerably. That would have the effect of undermining the prime example Mr. Unz has used to show that English-immersion programs are winning the race, bilingual education supporters say.

Mr. Unz continued to cite the example of Vista’s lagging behind Oceanside even after he learned about the scoring error. When questioned about it, he said he was continuing to go by scores “officially” reported to the public.

Some observers, including Mr. Villagra of MALDEF, now say the California education department might have prevented confusion in the debate by breaking out the scores for LEP students according to the programs they participated in.

But as matters stood, several groups on both sides of the debate, along with Mr. Unz’s English for the Children, rushed to get analyses out to the public after the release of the scores.

An analysis by Californians Together, a group that had formed to oppose Proposition 227, reported that 10 elementary schools with bilingual education programs posted scores as good as or better than three schools that have English-immersion programs. And Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, posted an examination of the issue on his World Wide Web site citing some school districts with bilingual education programs that had done as well as those with English-immersion programs and urging caution about drawing a link between Proposition 227 and test scores.

But an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity indicated the opposite, focusing on some districts with immersion programs that had come out ahead of those with bilingual education programs.

“Both sides are saying, ‘Look at my anecdotes,’ ‘No, look at my anecdotes,’” said Delia Pompa, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education. Ms. Pompa said the state’s plans to conduct a three-year study zeroing in on how children are doing in bilingual education programs vs. English-immersion programs, as well as a test it is developing to determine specifically how much English LEP children are learning, will provide much better measures of progress than the Stanford-9.

“We have to take a wait-and-see attitude,” she said.

But Mr. Unz, who referred to bilingual education advocates as “human vampires” fighting to keep in place a system that has benefited them but not students, discounts such arguments.

“They’re talking complexity because the facts are on the other side,” he said.

Action in Arizona

News about the California test scores drew plenty of attention in Arizona. The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, for example, ran TheNew York Times article, as well as local pieces about what conclusions could be drawn from the latest scores.

Maria E. Mendoza, the chairwoman of English for the Children-Arizona, said she has been citing the California scores as she stumps for her state’s Proposition 203 in talks and forums.

But Alejandra Sotomayor, a bilingual education teacher and the spokeswoman for English Plus More, which was formed to fight Proposition 203, said bilingual education proponents in Arizona are better able to fend off attacks than their counterparts in California. She said that Arizona has never had a state legislative mandate for schools to implement bilingual education, as California did until 1987.

“It’s a program choice in Arizona,” Ms. Sotomayor said. “It is not forced on the people.”

In addition, she said, the Arizona Department of Education has reported that LEP students in bilingual education have higher test scores in reading on the Stanford-9 than those in English-as-a-second-language programs, which offer a form of English immersion.

Jorge E. Amselle, the Center for Equal Opportunity’s vice president for education, suggested that those findings may be misleading, however, if Arizona schools exempted more students in bilingual education from the test than those enrolled in ESL programs.

A spokesman for the Arizona education department said that could have been the case, but that only the school districts know for certain.

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